Monday, June 9, 2014

Second Amendment Rumpus

It seems to me that every decade or two, almost as if by human nature, society must deal with some great panic. Some of these are reactions to real events, such as the stock market crash of 1929 or the terrorist plot of 2001; events such as these throw us all into understandable distress as we deal with uncertainty. However, real events are not necessary fuel for mass hysteria. In spite of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, it turns out that most actors in Hollywood during the 1950's were not, in fact, Communist agents. "Y2K" did not render all of our power stations, computer networks, and ATMs useless. The world did not end in 1988 or 1999 or 2011 or 2012.  Even though Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and won re-election in 2012, numerous prophets of doom were incorrect in that, to date, there has still been no proposal to confiscate firearms or to repeal the second amendment.

I find it quite difficult to discuss any aspect of gun use in America in an open forum (like Facebook) because the vast majority of argument - on both sides - is built on misinformation. While I don't believe that the government is plotting to steal privately-held guns, I also don't believe that gun owners are irresponsible, or that the mere presence of guns are a detriment to society. I can't begin to understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child to gun violence, but I have to confess that there may not be an effective legislative response, no matter how well-intentioned.

There has been a lot of debate about the wording of the second amendment, and what the intent of the "founding fathers" was in adding it to the Bill of Rights. I will concur that the simple fact of it being the second amendment implies particular importance, being listed next after the five freedoms of the first amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition of grievances. Since the second amendment itself refers first to "a well regulated militia", some have suggested that the right applies only to those in military service, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller) that it does guarantee an individual's right to bear arms independent of association with a militia. This was upheld in 2010 (McDonald (et al) v City of Chicago, Illinois), in which Justice Samuel Alito stated, "it is clear that the Framers . . . counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty." Even Supreme Court decisions can be wrong, and/or later reversed, but I would agree with the fundamental right of individual ownership. I believe that an individual gun owner does have every right to use that weapon in defense of his (or her) own family and even property, but I should also note that this passage, and others from our founding fathers, indicate that the intent was not "each man for himself", but rather the need for a common defense. The second amendment is concerned primarily with "the security of a free State", indicating that the mindset was more concerned with the impact to society than to individuals.

With the first half pretty well decided, impassioned debates continue over the latter half: "...the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". Does it mean all arms? Is regulation a form of infringement? Does "bear" mean one can carry a gun everywhere? Can anyone be denied a firearm for any reason? Can the federal or state government require training, a waiting period, or registration?

Today, there are an estimated 300 million guns in the US, the vast majority in the hands of private citizens. The USA is, by far, the nation with the most guns, both in raw number and per capita. I should point out, however, that there are different ways to describe gun ownership in America, and each side manipulates the statistics to their perceived greatest advantage. While the number of guns divided by the number of people produces a number like the one above, it is also true that the majority of US households do not have a gun. The reason for this is that many households with a gun have more than one. Likewise, depending on what the desired outcome is (right or left), statistics can show that gun ownership in the US is on the rise (especially in just the past few years), or that it is on a downward trend...and that violent crime is on the rise, or in decline, with implications that more (or less) guns are the reason why. In my research, I have found no convincing parallel either way.

Agreement with the Right

As stated earlier, I concur with recent Supreme Court rulings that individuals do have a constitutional right to firearms, for any lawful purpose. Some people hunt, others enjoy shooting as a pastime (typically at clay pigeons or a target at the shooting range). Some are merely collectors of weapons, perhaps even as investments, and have no intention of ever pulling the trigger. Some have purchased weapons as a means of self-defense. As for myself, I have never owned a gun (that didn't fire either water or balls of paint), and may never do so. The decision to own or not to own is one guaranteed by law (except for when George Washington had a little government-decreed "individual mandate" of his own requiring men of a certain age to purchase a gun and certain supplies).

This is why I cringe just a little when I hear comments akin to the following:
“Nobody needs a 15-round ammunition magazine unless they are a domestic terrorist or a gangster.” - Bryan Miller, Executive Director, Heeding God's Call (a faith-based group committed to reducing gun violence)
I understand where Mr. Miller is coming from, and he may even be correct in the strictest sense (how many things does anyone really need?), but there is a difference between a "need" and a "right". What is a right, if not something one can do without a requirement of proving need? I despise racist hate speech, for example, and would agree that no one needs to spew that kind of garbage, but I also strongly believe in the right of free speech. The first amendment is in "the top ten", collectively known as the Bill of Rights (not the Bill of Needs) - as is the second. Do we really want to start a legal precedent of having the government decide if individual rights are really "necessary"?

Another point on which I find myself in agreement with the right is the rather amorphous methodology of defining the term "assault rifle". The term itself seems engineered toward negativity, as an assault is typically considered a bad thing, outside of war. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 banned some guns by model, but most due to having certain attachments or capabilities, including grips, adjustable stocks, and other largely cosmetic enhancements. In some cases, a banned "assault rifle" was nearly identical to a legal rifle, and gun manufacturers were able to bypass restrictions in many cases with very slight modifications. The 1994 ban was passed with bipartisan support (even President Ronald Reagan lobbied for its passage) but expired in 2004. Since then, a number of weapons have been unofficially given the label, even if they would not have qualified for it by the terms of that now-expired legislation.

According to the official study by the National Institute of Justice, the ban had little impact on overall gun violence, in part because (even before the ban) such weapons constituted such a small minority of those used in violent crime. While certain high-profile cases have caused a national focus on certain models (like the AR-15), even a legal rifle can be used for illegal purposes. In fact, any focus on rifles is somewhat off the mark, as the majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns. As a comparison, more people are murdered by blunt objects each year than by rifles.

Agreement with the Left

Perhaps the Church of England can't have extreme points of view, but apparently there are no such limitations within the GOP. According to Public Policy Polling, half of Republican primary voters believed (even in 2011) that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Additionally, the majority of right-leaning voters (in a 2009 Gallup poll) thought that President Obama would "attempt to ban the sale of guns in the United States". 

I have already stated that I have a good deal of agreement with my more conservative friends on the scope of the second amendment. However, the more extreme assumptions of the far right seem irrational, from my perspective. For example, while we agree that the second amendment does guarantee the right of gun ownership (and legal use), I must add that no freedom is absolute. If you joke about explosives or hijacking an aircraft while going through the airport's security checkpoint, do not be fooled into thinking that you will be able to successfully defend yourself from any charges by claiming "freedom of speech". Use of marijuana (outside of Colorado or Washington) is still illegal, even if a Rastafarian calls it an attack on religious freedom. The tenth amendment (at least after the Civil War) can't be interpreted as to allow for slavery. All rights are still subject to some measure of regulation, and for my part, I do not equate regulation with infringement. I have a right to vote (and I urge everyone to do so, no matter who they support) - but I also must register to vote months before election day, a de facto waiting period. Additionally, in the state of Indiana my registration does undergo a limited background check: according to, the registration database "also exchanges data with the...Department of Correction to...remove incarcerated voters convicted of crimes." By the logic of the NRA, the government is obviously aiming here to remove my ability to vote.

The National Rife Association itself illustrates the recent drift toward the extreme: as recently as 1999 (in the wake of the Columbine tragedy), NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre stated, "we think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone." Mr. LaPierre has recently (and quite emphatically) reversed his opinion on the matter, even though 74 percent of NRA members support universal background checks. The growing distance between the leadership of the NRA and its members was cited by Adolphus Busch VI in his high-profile resignation from the NRA last year, which he blasted as "dominated by manufacturing interests." As a mouthpiece for companies looking to sell more guns, reliance on the NRA as an authority on gun matters makes about as much sense as relying on Hostess as an authority on nutrition.

The earlier argument against the Assault Rifle Ban, that criminals can use another model nearly identical, also works the other way. While the NRA and others on the right have suggested that they desire certain models for defense, other (legal/non-banned) models would work just as well. I have heard several people suggest that this or that rifle, or even guns in general, works much like a magic wand, able to prevent any tragedy. A gun is simply a tool. Buying or having a gun in itself does not make one safe - it is still a contest, assuming the adversary also is armed. The best gun in the world can still be useless against the worst; such violent situations have many factors, almost all of them out of your control. Will you be able to access it in time (robbers, rapists, and murderers typically will not politely announce themselves and/or their intentions), and if so, are you able to fire more quickly and more accurately than your attacker? If self-defense is one's purpose for a gun, then regular training is also essential. Imagine if I suggested that if I only could buy the same running shoes Usain Bolt uses, then I'd simply be able to run down anyone that tried to dash off with my wallet.

I know that (some on) the right are fond of suggesting that, if only the school hadn't been a gun free zone, then lives would have been saved. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples otherwise: Reagan was shot while standing feet from armed guards. Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and reportedly the most lethal sniper in American military history, was shot and killed on a shooting range. Unfortunately, another situation occurred just yesterday in which a man and a woman in Las Vegas shot two armed police officers, and when an armed citizen attempted to confront the duo, he was also shot and killed. There are times when a "bad guy with a gun" is stopped by a "good guy with a gun", but more often (at least in cases of mass shootings), the bad guy is stopped by his own gun.  Carrying even the best weapon, with years of training, is not a guarantee of safety for the individual or for society.

Still, many have argued that the real reason for the second amendment is to protect us from our own leaders. Rising conservative star Dr. Ben Carson recently wrote that the amendment was designed to be "a deterrent to the development of a tyrannical central government", and he is not alone in this idea. Such a stance is understandable, especially in an age in which the vast majority of Americans (not just the party opposite the President) does not feel adequately represented. I may also go so far as to say that our founding fathers may have had a similar idea in mind while assembling the Bill of Rights, but it simply breaks down under logical scrutiny, at least in today's world.

Firstly, while government guns are seriously outnumbered by those in private hands, even a million AR-15s are no match for one M4 Sherman tank, a single battleship, or a couple of Tomahawk missiles. One might be able to shoot down a single drone, but to use Tony Stark's words, "there is no version of this where you come out on top." If this dreaded scenario ever takes place, a host of handguns and shotguns would be all but useless.

It is interesting to note that the people I know who are most "pro-gun" are also often quite vocal about their support for "our troops", the men and women who serve in the American armed forces. They tend to be quite patriotic, and yet they often rail against the government. More than once, a Republican candidate has put out a lightly veiled threat about an armed revolution. In a recent campaign, Republican candidate for Senate Sharron Angle said "...if this, this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those second amendment remedies" (Sarah Palin and Rick Perry have each made similar comments). I wonder if any of them have thought that idea out. I know it's easy to stir up fear or hate of the incumbent one is running against, and I am sure that public opinion polling showed that such comments were popular especially with the Tea Party (a group that named itself after an act of vandalism and theft as an acceptable means of protest) - but if the big bad government comes for you, it won't be President Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, or any other suited government official knocking on your door. It will be these same, uniformed men and women that the right claims to support. So, Mr. Let-them-just-try-to-take-my-gun, which of these American soldiers are you planning on killing first?

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